The New York Times
The Italian Loverby Robert Hellenga
Margot Harrington's memoir about her discovery in Florence of a priceless masterwork of Renaissance eroticaand the misguided love affair it inspiredis now, 25 years later, being made into a movie. Margot, with the help of her lover, Woody, writes a script that she thinks will validate her life. Of course their script is not used, but never
Margot Harrington's memoir about her discovery in Florence of a priceless masterwork of Renaissance eroticaand the misguided love affair it inspiredis now, 25 years later, being made into a movie. Margot, with the help of her lover, Woody, writes a script that she thinks will validate her life. Of course their script is not used, but never mindhappy endings are the best endings for movies, as Margot eventually comes to see. At the former convent in Florence where "The Sixteen Pleasures"now called "The Italian Lover,"is being filmed, Margot enters into a drama she never imagined, where her ideas of home, love, art, and aging collide with the imperatives of commerce and the unknowability of other cultures and other people.
The New York Times
Hellenga reprises protagonist Margot Harrington from The Sixteen Pleasures (1995) in his latest, a romantic comedy about the book-to-film adaptation of Margot's memoir. In the fall of 1990, book restorer and longtime American ex-pat Margot is 53, living in her adopted Florence and awaiting the arrival of a film producer who wants to adapt her 1975 memoir for film. At the same time, Margot meets and falls in love with Alan "Woody" Woodhull, an Illinois-bred guitarist who gigs at the Bebop Club and also teaches literature at the American Academy. Meanwhile, producer Esther Klein desperately wants to make the film The Italian Lover, her first solo production since her husband/production partner left her. The movie crew includes Michael Gardiner, the "middling" director dying of cancer, and Miranda Clark, the young actress desperate to capture the true Margot. Subplots abound and conflicts brew (Woody rescues an abused dog; Miranda has problems with a nude scene), but the characters never come fully to life. Elegant in its colorful use of Italian phrases, cuisine and sites, Hellenga's complex novel offers a vivid, often sophisticated view of modern Florence, but less so of its residents and visitors. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Hellenga puts a twist on familiar terrain in this sequel to The Sixteen Pleasures. Metafictional gymnastics ensue when a Hollywood producer descends upon Florence with a cast and crew, determined to immortalize The Sixteen Pleasureson film. Renamed The Italian Lover, the producer's script retells the story of book conservator Margot Harrington and the manuscript of Renaissance erotica she rescued from obscurity. Margot, however, has written a script of her own and is determined not to let control of her own life story fall out of her hands. Readers unfamiliar with the original novel may not immediately connect with a story that depends so closely on its predecessor. However, the realism of the filmmaking scenes and the loving depiction of the Florentine landscape just might redeem the novel for those new to Margot's story. Although some characters initially appear flat and irritating, they demonstrate obvious growth as the film shoot progresses, and their story arcs lead readers to conclusions that they may not have anticipated. An unusual experiment; recommended where Hellenga is popular.
Leigh Anne Vrabel
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The Italian Lover
By Robert Hellenga
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Robert Hellenga
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bebop Club
Saturday night. End of September. Florence, Italy. Margot Harrington excused herself from a table at Il Fiasco in Via dei Servi, saying that if she had another grappa she'd be too tired to walk home and that if she drank another espresso she'd never get to sleep.
It had been a long week of endless meetings, and she was tired of talking, almost sorry she'd brought up the subject of the film, which she wouldn't have done except that everyone was sick of talking shop, and the conversation had slowed to a trickle. Besides, she was excited about it, so why not talk about it? A film about her. It was exciting.
She offered to pay for her share of the dinner, but Signor Alberti waved her away, inclining his head ever so slightly toward Mr. Bancroft, one of the sponsors of the conference, as if to say, Let the Americans pay. Margot said her ciaos and her good-byes and stepped out into the street. She could take a bus (too complicated), or a cab (too expensive), or she could walk. It was a lovely fall evening, almost crisp, almost midwestern.
The sidewalk in front of the Bebop Club on the other side of Via dei Servi was crowded with young people who were making so much noise that shealmost didn't recognize the song that was being piped out into the street:
Oh, baby don't you want to go Oh, baby don't you want to go Back to the land of California to my sweet home Chicago
It was a song her father had sung, and now, on this cool September evening, it overwhelmed her, as if someone had stuck a knife in her ribs.
She'd lived in Italy for almost twenty-four years. She missed her parents, but they were dead, so she might as well miss them in Italy as in the States. She missed her sisters too, but one lived in California and one in Florida, so living in Florence she probably saw more of them than if she'd been living at home. In Chicago, that is. And they thought nothing of sending a niece or a nephew to spend a month or two or three with their aunt Margot in Italy; Aunt Margot, who taught them things that they hadn't been taught at home. So what? If they wanted to know why she wasn't married, she told them. Why not? She liked living in a big apartment in Piazza Santa Croce and running her own book conservation workshop, or studio, on Lungarno Guicciardini, between the Chiesa Presbiteriana and the British Institute.
MARGOT HARRINGTON RESTAURAZIONE DEI LIBRI ANTICHI
And she didn't want to live or work anywhere else, not London, not New York, not even Rome.
She got lonely from time to time, but she'd had a string of lovers, most of them married. Well, why not? That's why she was so beautiful. She hadn't been beautiful when she first came to Italy, after the big flood in 1966. She'd been mousy. Then for a while she'd been spunky, and then for a while she was handsome, and finally she became beautiful. If enough Italian men tell you you're beautiful, you become beautiful. That's why you see so many beautiful women in Italy. If they - her nieces and nephews - wanted to know why she had so many friends, she explained that too. In Italian. Chi ha l'amor nel petto, ha lo spron ne' fianchi. A spur in the loins. Let them figure it out. They were going to have to learn about these things sometime. It might as well be in Italy, where human nature can be accommodated more easily than in the United States.
She pushed her way through the crowd on the narrow sidewalk, paid the ten thousand lire cover charge, and squeezed through the door. The Bebop Club wasn't one of her favorite places. It was too noisy, too crowded, too big, like an enormous cave that opened up into other caves, like the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. She had no idea how deep you could go and had no intention of finding out. She wanted to sit at a table in the main cavern so she could see the singer, who was still singing "Sweet Home, Chicago," really belting it out, playing an astonishing guitar - silver or chrome, light reflecting off it, blinding. A young woman joined in on the chorus: "Come on, Baby don't you want to go." The guitar had the funkiest sound Margot had ever heard.
The singer was a big rough-looking white man with a beard and a big rough Mississippi Delta voice. He looked familiar, like someone she'd known a long time ago, but she couldn't place him.
Now one and one is two two and two is four I'm heavy loaded baby I'm booked I gotta go
And the girl joined in on the chorus.
Oh, baby don't you want to go Oh, baby don't you want to go Back to the land of California to my sweet home Chicago
The man played a pretty fancy guitar break, and they sang the chorus once again, and when they came to the end they both started laughing.
The girl was Italian, Margot was sure of it. When he sang, the man sounded like someone from the Mississippi Delta, but he looked like a midwesterner. But then when he opened his mouth to introduce the next song, he spoke Italian with a Bolognese accent, and she thought she might be mistaken.
Margot would sometimes pick out someone on a bus and imagine this person, this face, these clothes, in an American context, and pretty soon she'd be convinced that whoever it was was a fellow American. Sometimes she'd say something in English and get a blank look. Not that Florence wasn't full of Americans. But Margot had lived her life outside the American community. She had Italian friends from way back, from her class at the Liceo Scientifico Morgagni when she'd spent a year in Florence with her mother; and she had friends she'd made through her work as a book conservator at the Biblioteca Nazionale and the Archivio di Stato. And she was still friends with some of her lovers. It was amazing to her when she thought of it, of them - so handsome, so suave, so full of tricks in bed - because she could still reach down inside herself and find an innocent girl from Illinois. And she could still remember that all she'd wanted to do was re-create the life her parents had led, the life they'd lived in the big house on Chambers Street in Chicago, where her father had been an avocado broker on the South Water Street Market, and her mother had taught art history at Edgar Lee Masters, a small liberal arts college on the north side.
Most of the time she thought in Italian and dreamed and fantasized in Italian, but sometimes when a new lover was caressing her breasts for the first time and whispering in her ear, she'd be thinking of Christmas morning in Chicago or of sitting in the car with her mother and her sisters while her father made a few phone calls at his office down on the market. And maybe when he was done, he'd pry open a flat of avocados and take out one for each of the girls - Margot and her two sisters - and peel them one by one with his pocket knife.
I'm going away, Baby, Cryin' won't make me stay, The more you cry, The more you drive me away.
Margot, who hadn't found a seat yet, called out a request for a song, letting the singer hear her voice, letting him know that she was from the Midwest. "'Sittin' on Top of the World,'" she shouted. "Can you play 'Sittin' on Top of the World'?" And she saw him searching the audience for her. She waved.
"That's in open D," he said into the microphone, in English. "I'll have to retune my guitar." He said something to the vocalist while he retuned the guitar, and she nodded. "C'è l'ultima canzone," the girl said, "da Illinois Woody." There was a round of applause and Illinois Woody began to sing.
Margot squeezed in at a table full of young people. Someone had gotten up to get a drink, and Margot took the chair despite some grumbling. The young people went back to their conversation, though why you'd try to have a serious conversation in the Bebop Club was beyond Margot.
'Twas in the spring One sunny day My sweetheart left me, Lord, she went away, But now she's gone gone gone And I don't worry, 'Cause I'm sittin' on top of the world.
All you had to do to pick up an Italian man, Margot had learned, was look at him. But she wasn't sure about a midwesterner. Illinois Woody. Besides, she didn't want to pick him up, for heaven's sake. She just wanted to talk to someone from the old country, to compare notes.
Illinois Woody finished the song and put his guitar in the case. He pushed his way through the crowd toward Margot, and as he approached she remembered where she'd seen him.
"I know where I've seen you," she said. "I saw you on Rai Due, on the anniversary of the bombing in Bologna, the strage. You were one of the speakers. You really gave the government hell. In fluent Italian too. Your daughter was killed in the bombing, wasn't she? I'm so sorry." She put her hand on his arm. "I didn't mean to blurt everything out like that."
"It's all right," he said. "It was a long time ago."
They ordered drinks. A beer for Illinois Woody, white wine for Margot.
What Woody told her about himself was that he'd come to Bologna in 1987 for the trial of the terrorists who'd put a bomb in the busiest train station in Italy on the busiest day of the year - the bomb that had killed his daughter; that he'd lived with an Italian woman in Bologna for a couple of years; that he'd taken a teaching job at the American Academy of Florence; and that he was hoping to go home at the end of the year. Back to Illinois. St. Clair.
Margot wasn't sure where it was.
"Between Moline and Peoria," he said.
Margot told Woody, making it sound more certain than it actually was, that a producer was interested in doing a film based on the book she'd written about her experiences when she first came to Italy after the big flood in 1966 - her discovery, in the convent where she was working, of a unique copy of a book of Renaissance erotic drawings, Pietro Aretino's I modi, and her subsequent love affair with an Italian art conservator. It wasn't for sure, she said, which is why she probably shouldn't be talking about it, but you never knew, did you?
Woody said you didn't.
She was irritated with herself for bringing up the film because she knew she was doing it mainly to make herself interesting, as if she weren't interesting without the prospect of a film. She thought she was very interesting. In any case, the book had been optioned when it first came out, fifteen years ago, by MGM for Emma Thompson, and then by Esther and Harry Klein, and then by a string of other companies whose names she didn't remember, and she'd gotten quite a bit of money, but nothing had come of it, and by now her agent had retired. She didn't know if she should look for another agent or not. The woman who wanted to produce the film - the same Esther Klein who'd optioned it after MGM - was coming to Florence next week, so if she wanted an agent she'd have to do something right away.
He didn't ask her about the book. What he asked instead was if she ever thought about going home.
She shook her head.
"Ever get homesick?"
She shook her head again. "Never," she said. "Not till tonight." This was not strictly true, but it wasn't strictly a lie either.
She nodded her head yes.
"It just hit me, when I heard you singing 'Sweet Home, Chicago.'"
"It's a Robert Johnson song," he said, "but everybody's got a version - Johnny Shines, Elmore James, Taj Mahal."
"My father sang all those songs," she went on. "'Key to the Highway,' 'Sittin' on Top of the World,' 'Come Back, Baby.'"
"Is your father still living?"
She shook her head no. And then she laughed. "He died in India. My mother had been dead for years, and he fell in love with an Indian woman at my sister's wedding and moved to Assam. Up in the north."
"I know where it is," Woody said. "The Romans got silk from the Brahmaputra Valley, but they didn't have a name for Assam. That's where all the tea comes from."
"Right. Nandini - that's the woman he fell in love with - owned a big tea garden."
"So, things worked out for him."
"Yes. But I wish he'd lived longer ..." She shrugged. "The sad thing is that I wish he could be buried next to my mom. She's all alone in Graceland Cemetery. I know it's a stupid thing, but he loved her so much ..." She started to tear up, and then she started to laugh again. "It really is stupid, isn't it?"
The band started another blues song, "Vicksburg Is My Home," and the young woman sang, "I'm gonna leave Chicago, go back to Vicksburg, that's my home."
"She's pretty good," Margot said.
Woody nodded. "Her name's Marisa," he said. "She's one of my students. She doesn't speak English very well, but she sings like Ida Cox."
Margot was glad when it was time to go, which they both knew without either one of them having to say it. Woody helped her on with her coat. He got his guitar and said good-bye to the band members. Margot buttoned up her coat as they started down Via dei Servi toward Piazza Santissima Annunziata on the way to the bus stops at San Marco.
"I live in Piazza Santa Croce," she said as they entered the piazza. "You?"
"Other side of the river. Piazza Tasso."
"We could walk together," she said, knowing that if he walked her home she'd invite him to come up. "I could carry the guitar partway."
But what happened was that as they entered the piazza a car came out of a little side street with a dog tied behind it. The car turned into the piazza, which was used as a parking lot during the day, and began to circle Giambologna's statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand, going faster and faster till the dog, which was running for its life, lost its footing and was dragged on its side behind the car, which swerved to the right and stopped in front of the statue of the Grand Duke. A man and a young woman got out of the car, and the man started cursing the dog. "I hope this will teach you a lesson, you miserable piece of shit. You fucking lazy bitch."
"He's got a knife," Margot said. "Look." The blade of the knife gleamed in the streetlights. "Let's get out of here."
But Woody, his guitar still in his hand, was already running across the piazza. "What the fuck is the matter with you?" he shouted in Italian. "You stupid asshole."
The man with the knife turned to face Woody. Medium height, expensive jacket. He held the knife in both hands, held it low, with the point sticking up, moving it up and down in front of him, pulling it upward with all his might as Woody, using the guitar as a shield, crashed into him and knocked him over. The man tried to scramble to his feet and to hold onto the knife at the same time, but the knife was stuck in the guitar case, and he lost his footing when he tried to pull it out. Woody glanced at the young woman, who was keeping her distance, and then kicked the knife man in the head. The knife man fell back on the pavement. The woman screamed. Woody kicked the man again and then again. He kicked him in the ribs and in the head. Real kicks. Margot was afraid he'd kill him. She was tempted to run away, but at the same time she was excited. "Stop," she shouted. "Stop, you'll kill him." She could see that the dog was covered with blood. She couldn't tell if it was alive. It was a medium-size black Lab. She ran to Woody and grabbed his arm.
Woody knelt beside the dog. "Call one-one-three. Get an ambulance. There must be a vet clinic that's open all night. I'll stay with the dog."
"Let's get out of here."
"We can't leave the dog."
"What about the man? What if he dies?"
"He deserves to die. Get going."
Margot started to run toward San Marco, but Woody shouted at her and pointed toward the Hotel Le Due Fontane, on the other side of the piazza. She asked the man at the desk to call Pronto Secorso and then she sat down in a chair in the lobby and put her head in her hands. She was having trouble breathing and her fingers were cold. "You'd better call the police too," she said. She waited while he called the police.
The ambulance was already there by the time she went back into the piazza. Woody was arguing with the driver, who didn't want to take the dog in the ambulance.
Excerpted from The Italian Lover by Robert Hellenga Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robert Hellenga received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and studied at Queen's University in Belfast and the University of North Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University. He is a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of the novels The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow, Blues Lessons, and Philosophy Made Simple.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is the third book in a series - I discovered after I was into this one. My response is based on that fact. Characters, plot, etc. were fine - not exceptional. The book is VERY well researched on Florence, Italy. All of his locations, descriptions, etc. are all right on the money. Consequently, it gives the reader a pretty accurate feel for the place. Nice read, just not exciting.
Readers of The Sixteen Pleasures will be delighted with the return of Hellenga's intriguing cast of characters, particularly heroine Margot Harrington. A book conservationist, she first came to Italy following the great flood of 1966. And, to her great amazement she came upon a copy of a book of Renaissance erotic drawings. She also embarked upon a love affair with an Italian art conservator. This coupling, as the song goes was too hot not to cool down, and the affair ended badly but Margot survived, and now the story of her life to date will be filmed. Producing the film is Esther Klein, once a top notch movie maker with her husband, Harry. Greener pastures beckoned Harry - not younger but greener and he dumped Esther for another woman. To add insult to injury it was a woman of Esther's age. Nonetheless, Esther is now working solo and determined to show Hollywood and the world that she could make a major film on her own. Nothing will stop her, she opines, absolutely nothing. Margot has found a new love interest in the person of Woody, a professor from Illinois, who had come to Italy for the trial of terrorists who put a bomb in a busy train station killing many, including Woody's daughter. He's a bit at loose ends now, soon pairing with Margot to write the screenplay for her film biography. Once the cast and crew arrives egos clash, careers as well as life hang in the balance, and lovers connect. All of this against one of the most beautiful, fascinating backdrops in the world - Florence, Italy. Hellenga treats us to vivid descriptions of gustatorial delights, art treasures, and scenic meanderings. Highly recommended for Italophiles and arm chair travelers with one major caveat - more careful editing. Misspellings are very distracting. - Gail Cooke
Fifty-three years old American expatriate Margot Harrington still resides in Florence. There she awaits film producer Esther Klein who wants to make a movie of her memoir The Sixteen Pleasures (for the film it is called The Italian Lover) in which the author describes how she found a valuable Renaissance erotica and in more detail her foolish love affair.-------------- Esther needs this project to prove she can go it alone since her partner-spouse dumped her she hires Margot to write the script. Margot meets and falls in love with American Alan 'Woody' Woodhull, who plays the guitar at the Bebop Club and teaches literature at the American Academy. Margot and Woody write a script from her memoir of what happened in 1975 while dying Michael Gardiner is hired as the director and Miranda Clark to perform as the younger Margot. However, Hollywood prefers happy endings, but for the almost thirtyish Margot that did not occur whereas the fiftyish Margot might achieve what her younger self failed to obtain.---------------- This sequel to the SIXTEEN PLEASURES continues the life of Margot fifteen years after her heart was broken. The story line is loaded with subplots that bring out the Hollywood invasion of Florence as much as the prime story line of Margot and Woody falling in love. Interestingly the city comes into deep focus as much more than a noted historical site while much of the cast including the star seem pale in comparison somewhat because too many sidebars involving the support characters never allow anyone to become fully developed. Still this is an enjoyable tale that compares real life vs. movie life.--------- Harriet Klausner
Fifty-three years old American expatriate Margot Harrington still resides in Florence. There she awaits film producer Esther Klein who wants to make a movie of her memoir The Sixteen Pleasures (for the film it is called The Italian Lover) in which the author describes how she found a valuable Renaissance erotica and in more detail her foolish love affair.----------- Esther needs this project to prove she can go it alone since her partner-spouse dumped her she hires Margot to write the script. Margot meets and falls in love with American Alan 'Woody' Woodhull, who plays the guitar at the Bebop Club and teaches literature at the American Academy. Margot and Woody write a script from her memoir of what happened in 1975 while dying Michael Gardiner is hired as the director and Miranda Clark to perform as the younger Margot. However, Hollywood prefers happy endings, but for the almost thirtyish Margot that did not occur whereas the fiftyish Margot might achieve what her younger self failed to obtain.------------- This sequel to the SIXTEEN PLEASURES continues the life of Margot fifteen years after her heart was broken. The story line is loaded with subplots that bring out the Hollywood invasion of Florence as much as the prime story line of Margot and Woody falling in love. Interestingly the city comes into deep focus as much more than a noted historical site while much of the cast including the star seem pale in comparison somewhat because too many sidebars involving the support characters never allow anyone to become fully developed. Still this is an enjoyable tale that compares real life vs. movie life.------------- Harriet Klausner